Gilian Wearings show at the Whitechapel gallery reveals an artist who uses various means to answer the same question. What lies beneath the mask? Essentially Wearing is a forensic portraitist cajoling herself and her subjects into revealing more.
Whether a portrait is a photograph, a painting, an interview or a film it sets out to achieve the same result. On the surface it is a physical likeness but the most rewarding and successful portraits reveal much much more. Gilian Wearing is best known in terms of portraiture for her use of masks which hide the face of the sitter but at the same time ask numerous questions about the person behind it.
As a photographer I was drawn to her recent self portraits of herself as iconic photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, August Sander. Why did she choose these particular photographers and what is it about their work that she feels is so important to her.
|Me as Mapplethorpe, 2009 Gilian Wearing, courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery|
Whether it is during an interview or during a portrait session a sitter will be known to “drop the mask” for a brief moment. The process of portraiture starts with the technical challenge of producing a likeness but the skill is to go further and to provide psychological questioning and probing of what is in front of the camera. What Arbus, Mapplethorpe and Sander have in common with Wearings approach is that they embraced the mask or the veneer that a sitter provides. Mapplethorpes surface consisted of a luminous classical beauty but probe deeper and there is a haunting quality to many of the faces. At times the mask is ghostly and the eyes are the only insights to the person beneath. Mapplethorpe celebrates beauty physically but tries to go beyond that surface and discovers the humanity, the vulnerability and the toll it takes on the self.
Arbus seems totally opposite to Mapplethorpe as she confronts the subject in a brutal and raw act. What she does is in effect to cast the interrogators light on to a controversial figure. Dwarves, transvestites, strippers they all came under her unwavering gaze which shocked at the time. Beneath her approach though lies an intellectual rigour concerning image and identity. She does not seduce the viewer visually but instead showers us with questions about our preconceptions. Once you have answered these questions the subjects give themselves up and the viewer is rewarded with a vision of humanity.
Sanders approach was more straightforward that the others, technically he favoured a traditonal portrait in terms of composition, the subjects pose and the way they are presented to camera. What he does do is make the viewer eye the detail, the quirks, the physical anomalies that add to a forensic profiling of the individuals. The individuals and groups present themselves to the camera saying “this is me” but the photographer does not accept the answer but instead returns with more questions, more probing of who they are, how they see themselves and how we respond to image, stereotype and character.
Wearings self portraits of these iconic photographers are certainly interesting and her work raises valid points about self, identity and what makes us who we are. The real reward for me lies in going behind her masks and into the minds of Arbus, Mapplethorpe and Sander. That is where the beauty of portraiture truly lies.